Being too literal in logo design

Tuesday, October 7th, 2008

Cross posted from my other blog:

In one of my lectures, on visual communication, I use a little exercise to illustrate an aspect of semiotics.

I give the students a brief: they are to design a logo for a law firm that specialises in family law, dealing with families who are facing some form of legal entanglement. I tell them they have two minutes to come up with an idea.
Two minutes later I stop them and ask them all to stand up. I then start eliminating them by saying things like “sit down if you drew a police badge”. That usually gets rid of about half. A gavel gets rid of several more, as do jail bars, a law book, a police light and so on.
Before long we’re down to the last few students and I can usually get rid of them too with ‘hands’ or ‘cut out people’. I also eliminate anyone who used just words or initials (words aren’t so bad of course, I’m just being mean, but initials for firms always bemuse me – IBM and a few others aside, of course).

If there’s anyone left standing it’s either because I’ve missed a really obvious one (last year it was a bird, this year it was a court house) or because they’ve done something quite abstract – this year it was a square with four circles around it. Nice one. We have a winner.

(Just remembered, Orlando Weeks now of The Maccabees, “won” this a few years ago when he did a logo of “a unicorn jumping over a rainbow”. Mmm…)

The point I’m trying to make in that exercise, other than it being a bit of a break from them listening to me drone on, is that when faced with a quick challenge like that, students (everyone) tend to to think not in cliches (I happen to think cliches are good things – they’re how we communicate) but in too literal a sense. The last thing, I say, someone who is facing juvenile court on a shoplifting charge wants to see is a logo for a lawyer that screams “you’re going to jail!”.
Look at supermarkets – how many of them have logos that show a basket of shopping? (I seem to be the only one who thinks the Lidl logo looks like someone pushing a trolley)

BE4D2667-9A33-42F8-B82D-D820A5871AB2.jpg

I came up with this little game (which makes more sense in the context of the lecture than it does here) a few years ago when some graphic design students at a previous job were asked by a local law firm to come up with a logo for a similar brief. The winner was a half open door with light coming through it. The tutor loved it, the clients loved it. I hated it. They thought it said “there is hope”. I thought it said “you’re doomed”. But then, that’s me for you.
It did, however, make me look anew at logos to try to find the overly literal. And while there are a few, they’re pretty rare and almost universally poor. I won’t link to any here – look for yourself you lazy git.

All of which brings me to something that amused me. A couple of years ago, after I’d done this exercise with them, some students came in to my office with something they’d found in the Yellow Pages. An ad for a law firm which fell in to exactly the trap I’d laid for them (click on the image for a larger version). I think this is a pretty amazing/bad piece of advertising – I’ll have to add prison tattoos to my list for next year’s lecture.

Lawyer ad.jpeg
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